United States

UNITED STATES Report to the Midyear Meeting Caracas, Venezuela March 28 - 30, 2008 In the last six months there have been disturbing signs on the press freedom front, but also some progress. Still, much work remains to be done. One of the more stunning developments in recent weeks is a ruling by a U.S. District judge in Washington that former USA Today reporter Toni Locy pay fines of up to $5,000 a day for refusing to reveal her confidential sources for stories about the 2001 anthrax attacks on media organizations and congressional offices. The ruling is unprecedented because it also prohibits her former employer, or anyone, from reimbursing her. An appeals court panel has temporarily blocked imposing the fines until arguments can be heard by Locy's lawyers that the judge's contempt citation has no merit. Another similar case is pending against former CBS News correspondent James Stewart for his reporting on scientist Steven Hatfill. Lawyers for Hatfill, who was named a "person of interest" in the anthrax attacks by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, are trying to compel the testimony of Locy who now teaches at West Virginia University. She says she cannot recall which of her FBI and Justice Department sources gave her information about two stories she wrote about Hatfill, who is suing the government for naming him in the investigation. Also, in February, a federal grand jury in Virginia issued a subpoena to New York Times reporter James Risen. The grand jury is trying to force Risen to reveal his confidential sources for his book "State of War" published in 2006 on the Central Intelligence Agency. In 2006, Risen won the Pultizer Prize for reporting in The Times that disclosed the federal government's program for wiretapping without warrants. The grand jury is seeking information from Risen about a chapter in his book covering an old intelligence plan in Iran. Against this backdrop, the chairwoman of the Newspaper Association of America, Sue Clark-Johnson, recently wrote, "Press freedom is under assault from the federal government, the judiciary and all shades of political persuasion. The shield legislation must be adopted." While the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the federal shield law in October, the long fight continues for similar action by the full Senate. The bill, also known as the Free Flow of Information Act, would give federal protection to journalists asked by lawyers and federal prosecutors to identify confidential sources. These latest cases show a growing trend by the federal government and private lawyers to force journalists to reveal their sources. More than 40 reporters and media groups have been subpoenaed or questioned about their confidential sources, their notes and other aspects of their work in federal courts over the last few years. The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a compromise shield bill granting limited protection to reporters and seeking to satisfy those who believe that in some cases public safety concerns should compel journalists to testify. But a major obstacle continues to be opposition by the U.S. Justice Department and the threat of a presidential veto because of national security concerns. On a positive note, President Bush signed into law on Dec. 31 the Open Government Act, one of the most important legislative victories in recent years for advocates of better access to government records. The American Society of Newspaper Editors called it "a crucial fix to an essential law." The new law toughens the existing Freedom of Information Act by requiring agencies to respond to requests within 20 days and creating a system for the news media and public to track requests. A dispute has arisen, though, over a key provision of the law that President Bush now seeks to change. The new law creates a new office to act as ombudsman in FOIA disputes to resolve conflicts, but Bush wants the new conflict-resolution office moved to the Justice Department. Press groups and other critics are fighting that proposal on grounds that the Justice Department is often defending agencies seeking to keep records secret, creating a conflict of interest. And the American Society of Newspapers Editors concluded another successful Sunshine Week campaign in mid-March. The aim of the campaign, supported by 500 news organizations, is to focus citizen attention on the importance of freedom of information laws and open government. Special advertisements – in both English and Spanish – were offered to newspapers to promote press freedoms. In other developments, a coalition of San Francisco Bay area journalists continues its work examining the circumstances of last year's murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey Jr. A suspect has been arrested and, according to press reports, he said he shot Bailey because of stories Bailey had written and would be writing. The Chauncey Bailey Project Team is trying to learn whether others are complicit Bailey's murder. The case of AP photographer Bilal Hussein, detained by the U.S. military in Iraq since April 2006, raises questions about due process and speedy justice. He continues to be jailed without formal charges. No evidence has been disclosed to show wrongdoing. The military says he has links to insurgents and had advance knowledge of an attack on U.S. forces. But the Associated Press conducted its own extensive review of the case and found no evidence suggesting anything improper. In December, Hussein first learned about the charges against him during a secret hearing. According to an AP account, Hussein and his lawyer were denied a copy of the documents used against him during the hearing, although they requested copies to prepare a defense. And the judge ordered them not to say anything more about the hearing. Press coverage of the military hearings for terror suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay continues to be problematic. A veteran reporter who has covered the Guantanamo story for many years says the Pentagon "has retrenched at the Military Commissions into withholding briefs and in some cases rulings and appeals, leaving reporters often confused by the topic being hashed out in pre-trial proceedings." Information about a new prison camp was withheld for a year. Military spokesmen there are generally unresponsive to questions about what is going on.